“I don’t think artists are any more free than under the Ben Ali regime, but I think that there are new socially accepted ways of appreciating art now, which will help Tunisia move forward.”
The Arab Spring fast became a massive historic movement. Amid this huge fanfare of people’s growing demand for freedom and democratic governance was also an artistic angle that made the uprisings all the more important.
Artists like the 31-year-old El Seed, a renowned French-born Tunisian calligraffitist, have played an important role in this respect. He spoke to Your Middle East from Doha where he is currently finishing a big project called “El Seed in Doha”. He will be painting four 200-meter-long tunnels on a new highway in the Qatari capital.
“The quotes written on these walls will focus on its identity, education, history and several other aspects,” he said.
In his youth, Seed was willing to try anything that came his way and started spray painting in the late 1990s at the age of 16.
“When I was growing up, I was surrounded by nothing but hip hop-break dancing, Mcing, and graffiti. I had always been interested in art – mostly drawing and painting…being in a hip pop environment in the Parisian suburbs, graffiti was a natural progression for me the moment I was exposed to it,” he said.
“I didn’t get to know how to read and write Arabic until my late teens. That’s when it occurred to me that I must go and rediscover my Tunisian ancestry.”
Seed’s interest in graffiti grew as a result of his passion for the aesthetics of Arabic calligraphy.
“In its absence, I treated graffiti as just a passing hobby. I wasn’t that serious. But it all changed when my love for Arabic calligraphy grew deeper. From then on, it became an inseparable part of my psyche and got to believe that this is the purpose of my life and the only way to keep alive Tunisians’ curio for changes.
“At a time when the art world revolves around the Western-oriented trends, I am proud to say that my works of art are rooted in Arabic customs. I feel very pleased.”
When asked whether he went to any prestigious university or took a course in graffiti, he said “no”.
“My formal education was in business, not art. I have never taken an art course, nor did I learn the rules of Arabic calligraphy. In fact, I learned my art on the streets, with friends and mentors, and simply by practicing over and over again to develop my skills and style.
“I wanted to be different in my approach when it came to facing the issues of the Tunisian society in transition as well as going through a terribly dark period.”
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Seed’s role models include French graffiti artist Hest1, “who was my first mentor and an artist I highly respect”. He is also influenced by his friends and fellow artists such as Sundus Abdul Hadi.
“I have a lot of respect for honesty in her work. In the graffiti scene, Shuck Two is one of the first in France to have used Arabic when doing graffiti, and his work pushes a lot of boundaries.”
So what’s the thing that made him an aficionado of graffiti? He replied vigorously, “graffiti is considered to be part of hip hop culture and it is different in just the same way as hip hop music is different from other types of music. This art form has a long tradition and most of it has been as part of an underground subculture. Because of this underlying factor, graffiti has intentionally shunned the mainstream and in turn has been shunned, so I guess this is one of the main differences from other art forms. Also, graffiti is very liberating. It is more malleable and you can take it in so many different directions. You can paint outside, inside, on large scale or super-sized scale – you can take graffiti and mould it into what you want it to be, using different styles, and alphabets and so on.”
Seed’s murals often receive recognition because they express a need to live in peace whilst respecting others. So when he was invited by community-based organization Al Khaldounia to paint in Tunisia, sponsored by the Barjeel Art Foundation, he couldn’t resist the mere idea and said ‘yes’ – though on one condition.
“I expressed my wish to paint in my hometown of Gabes. And when this organization found that the tallest minaret of the main mosque named ‘Jara Mosque’ here needed a color revamp, they came up with this proposal. I was simply over the moon then,” he said.
When they approached the Imam for his final say, he was more than happy to take part in the project. However, it was a very challenging initiative, both in terms of organization and execution.
“The two walls were so immense that the scale was daunting. It took a lot of time and patience but I’m glad I stuck through it – it was definitely a steep learning curve for me on many levels.”
Its message, written up front in Arabic calligraphy wordings, was quite vocal and clear, a verse from the Holy Quran based on its teaching of tolerance.
“The other objective of this project was to revive the cultural heritage of Tunisia and keep it all shining and intact for good,“ Seed said. “It’s obvious that we are living in a very unstable world and therefore, whatever positive could be done is only going to generate sparkles of joy with eternal light.”
Seed’s works have been displayed worldwide in galleries and museums for what they represent and have also featured in many international publications. His messages depend on the context of the surroundings.
“I try to bring something relevant to a place where I paint, so the phrase will be something inspired by the people I am around, or the feeling I get from a certain place. I think that throughout all my work I try to talk about topics that are often ignored or overlooked.“
As far as he is aware, his work has not been the target of any significant criticism or attacks. In fact, the Tunisian people have really taken it to their hearts.
“I don’t think my work is seen as sacrilegious though it’s very sensationalist nowadays to pit religion against artistic expression. I think this is false. People were rather enthused after seeing the work I did in Kairouan and Gabes and even the smaller murals I did. They were always intrigued and curious.”
Asked how free or constrained the artists were in Tunisia before the Arab Uprising, he muttered, “art was consumed as part of a certain culture in Tunisia – something reserved for the upper echelons of society. During the uprising, art took to the streets and has brought new visibility to graffiti artists and street artists, and of course has produced new ones.
“I don’t think artists are any more free than under the Ben Ali regime, but I think that there are new socially accepted ways of appreciating art now, and that a lot of art is now branching out under the umbrella of ‘free speech’ which will help Tunisia move forward and catch up with the rest of the world.”
Now it’s Tunisians’ chance to prove that this newly found freedom will not go in vain. When Seed went back to his homeland in December 2011 and visited it again during the summer of 2012, he found people fearlessly debating various issues.
“I’m not sure I can talk for all Tunisians, (but) people spoke a lot more openly – suddenly everyone had an opinion about everything. I think this was the biggest change I saw and that the taboos surrounding topics of discussion, especially around politics were nowhere evident.
“Right now, Tunisians are finding a new normal and it will take time to get there.”
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